Childhood Memories of Charles Lindbergh

In an excerpt from her memoir, Reeve Lindbergh, the daughter of the famous aviator, recalls her father’s love of checklists

Reeve Lindbergh
Author Reeve Lindbergh, daughter of aviator Charles Lindbergh, standing outside barn on her farm. Photo by Richard Howard / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Reeve Lindbergh, the youngest daughter of Charles and Anne Morrow, is the author of several novels and children’s books. Her critically-acclaimed 1998 memoir, Under A Wing, tells the story of growing up under the watchful eye of her famous father, who kept checklists for each of his children, just as he made detailed lists to check and double-check before any of his flights.

Some people believe that the most important thing Charles Lindbergh contributed to the field of aviation was not the flight in the Spirit of St. Louis, but the safety checklist. I have mixed feelings about this theory, though I think it may be correct, As a pilot my father habitually kept comprehensive lists on all his equipment and all his flying procedures. He checked and rechecked these constantly to make sure that everything he did before, during, and after each flight was appropriate, and that the aircraft was in top condition. It was a habit that saved his life more than once, and it most likely saved the lives of many other flyers who followed him. Yet those who lived with him found that our lives, like the airplanes, were also monitored by checklists (one per child), and for us there was about his list making, and checking, and rechecking, an invitation to anxiety, a degree of tedium, and a certain measure of gloom.

I knew, for instance, that when my father returned to Connecticut he would call me into his office within twenty-four hours, then look at the current list to see what was written under my name. All of our names were there, each underlined at the head of its own column, in his neatly slanted, penciled print: Jon, Land, Anne, Scott, Reeve. Some of the columns were long, others were short. One or two items in each column had a check mark penciled to the left of it, or a line drawn through the word entirely. Most, however, did not. That was why we were summoned into his office. There was much to be thought about, when our father came home, and even more to be done.

I did not think it was honorable to read a sibling’s list, but by the time my father had scanned mine, I already knew what was on it. I had learned to read upside down almost as soon as I could read at all. From where I was standing in the doorway, at the very beginning of my visit to his office, I could usually estimate how long it would be before I could leave again. Were there many items in the column under my name, or just a few? And were they specific, tangible concerns, like “rake left out in rain,” for which I could apologize and then leave the office, or were they of a more general nature, like “reading comics” or “chewing gum,” which would require discussion, and take more time? And woe betide me if there was something really big written on my list, like “Freedom and Responsibility.” Freedom and Responsibility were good for half an hour, sometimes half an hour each.

There was a “Freedom and responsibility” lecture—“If you’re going to have freedom, you must have responsibility”—applied to anything from dating boys to coming to the dinner table on time. There was an “Instinct and Intellect” lecture, about appreciating nature, using common sense, and not getting carried away with contemporary trends, “fuzzy” ideas, or fancy advertising gimmicks. That one sometimes included a discussion of the unnecessary expense of modern toys, and ended with, “Why, when I was your age, I was perfectly happy to play all day with a stick and a piece of string!”

There was a “Downfall of Civilization” lecture, prompted by our father’s encounters with air conditioning, television, politics, Pop Art, or Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. These he felt were insincere, commercially inspired artificial holidays. He therefore would not allow us to celebrate them at our house. We could not overtly disobey him, but if he was away when Mother’s Day came around, we garlanded our mother’s place at the table with flowers, showered her with crayoned greeting cards, mine covered with princesses and flowers and hearts, and reveled in our defiant sentimentality.

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